Just like everyone who is old enough to remember the event, I clearly recall where I was when the events of 9/11 took place. It's so seared into our memories that it's taken on the dark, twisted equivalent of a star so big that we don't even need to say his or her last name. We all know it, but we don't have to say it. Nobody needs to ask what year you mean. At the risk of being one too many to tell his story, I would like to share my recollection of that event and its aftermath. This is going to be in no way political or controversial, so please don't stop reading for that reason. It's a purely personal narrative. Maybe it will help you process your memories or maybe you're too young to remember the event clearly; I hope this will help you feel the impact in a more meaningful way.
I was teaching at Parkersburg High School, just as I do now, though it was a different place then--in many ways. It happened that I was on my planning period and had gone to the teachers' lounge, which doubled as the copy room in those days. We had a busted up old television then that didn't work all that well, but it showed the local NBC affiliate. It was early enough that the Today show should've been on, but when I walked in, there were people talking about a plane hitting one of the towers of the World Trade Center. They showed video of it while discussing, as best they knew it, how the plane had come to fly into the side of the building. There was early conjecture that the plane had been hijacked or that there had been a terrible malfunction causing the plane to fly wildly out of control. They even showed footage from an event in the thirties in which a plane lost control and flew into the Empire State Building.
But as they were chattering away, live for the whole world to see, a second plane hit the other tower. This was no accident. It wasn't even a simple hijacking. It was a coordinated attack. This was, of course, confirmed as word filtered in of the other two planes. My main memory of the moments immediately following the impact is of the thousands of sheets of paper raining down out of the building like a macabre ticker-tape parade. When I finally got my wits about me, I ran to the office to tell them what had happened. They turned on a TV and we all watched, stunned, stupefied, almost afraid to consider the ramifications of this event.
Eventually, the bell rang, meaning I had to go back to my room for class. I had a big TV in there too and turned it on. As the kids came in, some having already heard some or all of the news, they sat down, mesmerized, in front of the screen. We all huddled together, trying to work out in our minds just how this all could be real. The TV stayed on all day; only the classes changed. But an odd phenomenon happened that I've never experienced since. As classes changed, it was like someone had hit the mute button. The silence was haunting.
The Student Council, in what has become an annual event, put together a remembrance ceremony. This one was held at night and took the form of a candlelight vigil. My main memories of this are the sea of candles that dotted the front campus and the vacant, wretched face of ET Hague. It didn't occur to me until a couple days later that he was Mary Lou Hague's brother.
Several months passed; I finally had to admit that my dark addiction had caused me to fall into a deep depression. I had to quit. I had to turn off the TV. After all these months, I was still bitter, angry, and depressed. And yet, although I'm a bit of a crybaby under other circumstances, I realized I had never once shed a tear over the nearly 3000 lives that had been lost. I didn't really want to cry but it seemed odd that I never had.
Several more months passed and it was suddenly the first anniversary of the tragic event. Despite some controversy and rumblings that it was too soon because the country was still raw from grief, CBS decided to run a retrospective on 9/11. To be honest, I don't remember that much of the show. I recall feelings more than specific scenes: desperation, frustration, anger, hopelessness, abject sadness. And yet, through it all, I still did not cry.
Until one of the final scenes. Those who are old enough doubtless remember that the area around Ground Zero was plastered shortly after the towers fell with posters put up by loved ones of people who were missing in the hopes that, by some miracle, they had made it out alive and simply hadn't been able to make contact. This was technically possible since there was no cell service, no landline service, no bus service, no train service--just no way to communicate with the outside world. Well, one of the final scenes is of footage taken by someone, I have no idea who, of a long wall covered top to bottom and end to end with these posters. Whoever recorded the video stopped and zoomed in on one particular poster. It was at this moment that I cried.
The lovely face that smiled back at me was that of Mary Lou Hague. A graduate of Parkersburg High School. Sister of my former student. By all accounts one of those people that everybody loved and who loved everybody. Suddenly those nearly 3000 people became real to me. They were no longer a faceless, nebulous number, but instead what flooded my soul was the realization that each of these people was somebody's sister or brother or mom or dad or aunt or uncle or husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend or best friend and each one was keenly missed by people whose lives were rent in two when, for no reason that any truly decent person can even fathom, they were ripped from this world forever.
I didn't just cry. I keened. I sobbed so violently that my wife, who was in another room scurried in to see what was wrong. I couldn't speak. I just pointed to the screen. Seeing what I was watching, she understood.
That day I made two vows. First, I vowed that I would tell this story to my students every year to always remind them that this day happened and that it changed our country and every person in it forever. I am now telling it to students many of whom are too young to have any clear memory of it. Soon I'll be telling it to people who were literally not on this planet when it happened and I don't want us to be like the Israelites after Joshua died who became people that, in the words of my good friend Randy Halterman, knew of God but did not know God. I don't want my students to know of this event--I want them to know it. I want them to be intimately acquainted with it, with its ugliness, its abjectness, its savageness. I want them to know it well enough to work every day to see that we never experience it again.
And second, I vowed to remember that every single day could be my last. My last to enjoy a sunset, my last to laugh with my family and friends, my last to say I love you and I forgive you and you mean the world to me and I don't know how I would have made it without you and a thousand other things that we seem to feel like we have all the time in the world to do and say. For each of those nearly 3000 people who died that day, there was something undone, something unsaid. Please God, may that never be said of me when I die.